Many years ago, I came across an old book written by a former Bishop of Southwell, which had the title: “To recover Confidence”. In this book, Bishop F.R. Barry was doing what Bishops do. Very simply, he was issuing a rallying cry to the Church in his day. He called them to a renewed confidence in Christ and his purposes for the Church.
Now, it probably tells you something important about us as the people of God that every so often we need things like this to be done; and of course, our own day is no exception. Without exaggerating, the anxiety of many Christians today, I would suggest, is all too evident and this I think is for a couple of reasons in particular. Firstly, because we assess and measure ourselves in all the wrong ways and secondly, because we`re all too inclined to believe the black propaganda.
So, many years later when another Bishop described the Church of England as rather like an elderly lady sitting in a corner muttering to herself… I don`t think he appreciated how images like that can become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
And those wo didn`t go into depression went into something resembling frenzy and panic. Because, everywhere the cry went up that we need to be more `relevant` (a questionable assumption to which I shall return) and become far too anxious and busy. Essentially, all we`ve really done is begin resemble, not so much the old lady in the corner but a perpetual adolescent… We`re held captive by the spirit of the age and we live under the tyranny of constantly pursuing the new and the novel. All the while forgetting, it seems to me… our most fundamental task, which I`d like us to pray about today: Worship.
Now, you might wish to differ with me somewhat. Surely, you might insist; the past generation has seen huge changes in worship; it`s been a primary focus for our attention. But let`s be clear, there`s nothing `Seeker-Sensitive` about worship in Scripture. We don`t see anyone `Freshly Expressing` anything. It`s not Café-shaped, Messy nor (and this is the point) … nor is it designed with any motive in mind other than the offering of all life, honour and praise to the God of our Lord and Saviour Jesus the Christ. You see we entirely miss the point when we turn questions about worship into arguments about Orders of Service or whether we can make Church or what happens here especially relevant or appealing.
Because dear friends, you are not here to put on a weekly pageant that might be acceptable to those who are not `in Christ`. You`re not here to offer something which soothes or colludes with the concerns, aspirations, interests and conceits of a world that wants to live as if God is not God. On the contrary, you are here to help people learn to speak `Christian`… or as someone put it, you are here to “lead creation in the worship of the creator”. You are here to present an alternative way of being a world and a better way of being human.
I so often wonder, where on earth did we get the notion that worship is about `meeting needs`? No, worship is about God. Worship is its own reward. Right Worship, right praise is our calling… without one eye on what other people might think. No, if worship is for our benefit at all the only `need` it addresses is our need to be transformed into the likeness of Christ. And this happens in two ways….
Firstly, worship remind us of both who we are and whose we are. What I mean is that the very act of gathering in obedience to the Sabbath command is that we put down a marker as to where our true and ultimate loyalties lie. You see, I don`t think we have begun to appreciate how radical and thoroughly subversive a thing it is to worship. It is… or at least should be… regarded as absolute dynamite. Ask some of our many persecuted brothers and sisters what happens when day by day week by week you persist in reminding the world; anyone within earshot of its true king.
Because that`s what we learn of Jesus in that Epiphany Reading today isn`t it? (Matthew 2.1-12) The coming of the Christ; the world`s true King threw everyone (especially those who considered themselves to be someone) into an absolute panic. Why? Because his very presence exposes our real problem: idolatry. The attempt to live as if God is not God. In the birth of Jesus the Christ, the Kingdom of self… and the Kingdoms of the world are `on notice`. Because, the question is never `whether` we worship but `what or whom`. And to a world that seems obsessed with matters of identity and persists in attempting find their sense of who they are in things less than God, worship gets things the right way around.
And this is the second thing: You see worship `forms` us in our true identity, as sons and daughters of this King. We mustn`t domesticate or turn passages such as the one we heard a moment ago, into little children’s` stories. Remember, those visitors from the East `paid him homage ` but that act of worship changed them. They didn`t go `back to Herod`, to the recognised authority; because we`re told “they left for their own country by another road”. (Matthew 2.12) My point is that this is what we must learn to expect from our gathering here: Formation in Discipleship.
Jesus tells us, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”. (Matthew 6.21) In our worship, just like the wise men, we hand over our treasures… our loves… the things which most drive, motivate and enthuse us. And here`s the thing… We offer them for trans-formation. We expect to leave here by another road… with our loves trans-formed. So, I`m calling us to a renewed confidence today and I`m suggesting that confidence will come as we re-engage with what it means to worship; as we kneel before the king of kings. It really does begin and end with God; the one Revelation calls the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.
And if I were to offer one practical step I would suggest that you immerse yourself in the Book of Psalms. Not just because it`s the book which taught our Lord to pray… but because it has nurtured the Church in a true Vision of God from the very beginning. I was taught a long time ago that if you`re going to learn to pray, you need to read at least one Psalm every day. And what`s true for us individually is especially true of us as a Church. Place the Psalms at the heart of your worship….
You could do worse than begin with Psalm 115. Not least because the writer takes a well-aimed and comedic shot at the shallowness and stupidity of the world`s idolatry. He pokes fun at the nations by saying:
Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see.
They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell.
They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk;
they make no sound in their throats.
But then he ends by saying:
Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them. (Psalm 115 4-8)
Again, the writer`s point is that it is never a matter of `whether` we worship… but WHAT we worship. And in the end, we will always come to resemble the desire of our hearts…We become like the thing…the god we worship.
Dear friends, in times of change and uncertainty you will find the confidence to be faithful as you centre your lives in worship; the worship of the true and living God revealed in Jesus the Christ. Right worship, Right praise is the most Christ-like and therefore the most missional thing you can do. Our prayer is that in worship you should be transformed into the likeness of Christ… that you will bear his image to those with whom you live and work. It all begins here. You become what you worship…